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Indigenous Peoples' Literature

Katlian and the Iron People


When the Iron People, the Russians, came to Alaska in vessels much larger than canoes, they had weapons that smoked and made noises like thunder. On their vessels they had larger weapons that hurled balls of iron that would smash trees into pieces. Faced with this great power, Katlian the chief of the Tlingits at Sitka gave the Russians all the furs and skins and other property that they demanded.

Although the Iron People would not go away, there was peace for a time between the Tlingits and the bearded strangers. The Tlingits traded skins for the weapons that thundered, and for cartridges, and they learned to kill animals with these weapons brought by the Iron People.

After a while the Iron People built a village of houses across the inlet and brought their families from their land beyond where the sun sets. One day Katlian's nephew visited the village and saw the daughter of one of the Iron People. He fell in love with her. He followed her to the house where she lived and tried to buy her with furs, but the girl's father angrily sent him away. When Katlian's nephew tried to steal the girl, the Iron People killed him.

This nephew was like a son to Katlian, and at the first opportunity the chief killed the son of one of the Iron People. Baranoff, the leader of these people, sent a message to Katlian to surrender himself, or else all the Tlingits at Sitka would be killed by the weapons that smoked and hurled pieces of metal.

Katlian called his people together and they began building walls out of big cedars. They built houses inside these walls, and put flat rocks between the cedars and the walls of the houses. Soon afterwards the Iron People came in a vessel to destroy them. Ten times they fired their large weapons that hurled balls of iron against the wall of cedars and rocks. Baranoff their leader then called out from the ship for Katlian to surrender himself to them, but Katlian replied in a loud voice that he could not do this. The Iron People then fired more shots at the cedar and rock walls.

After they had done this for a while, the Iron People came off the ship in three small boats. They landed on the beach, carrying guns with bayonets. Katlian led his people out to meet them, and while the Iron People were firing by command, the Tlingits shot into them many times. The Tlingits threw out their empty cartridges quickly and shot again. They killed many of the Iron People. Only those who had charge of the boats got back to the ship. Then the war vessel sailed away.

For two moons, the Tlingits worked to strengthen their little fort, and then the Iron People came again in two war vessels. This time they fired at the cedars and rocks from two directions. Baranoff then shouted: "Katlian, are you still alive?"

"Yes," the chief replied. "I am not afraid of the cannon you use against me."

Again the cannon roared, and again the Iron People came to the beach in boats. Once more, Katlian led the Tlingits against the invaders, and this time they killed many of them and took their guns, coats, hats and swords. The two war vessels sailed away.

After some time had passed, the Iron People returned in a small ship flying white flags of truce. Without weapons of any kind, Baranoff came to the beach under a flag of peace. "Katlian," he called, "are you still alive?"

Katlian walked out of the fort. He carried no weapons. "Yes," he replied, "I am still alive. I won. Now it is all right for you to kill me."

"I bring you presents," Baranoff said. He gave Katlian clothing, food, rum, and cartridges. After that the Iron People did not bother the Sitka Tlingits again.




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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.


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